Are you looking for love or are you looking for marriage?
You will probably count that as a dumb question. Doesn’t true love lead naturally to marriage? Isn’t marriage an expression of love?
Most young people today seem to believe that if you find true love will naturally live happily ever after. Which naturally leads those of us who are no longer young to believe that today’s youth is living in a fairy tale.
It does happen at times that people fall in love and get married. Yet, the notion that marriage expresses true romantic love defies the facts. It is a very modern notion, one that ignores the fact that in most human civilizations romantic love has existed outside of marriage.
It’s one thing to say that it is good for married couples to love each other. It is quite another to say that the marital institution is designed to express true love, and that, therefore, people should marry the one they love, lest they be deprived of something vital.
Of course, this is a hot-button cultural issue. Ask yourself this: let’s say that a man and a woman fall in love. The man is married; so is the woman. They are not married to each other.
Should they divorce their respective spouses in order to live their love to the fullest? Should they care about what happens to their children? If they eventually fall out of love should they divorce each other and go looking for love somewhere else?
It’s one thing to say that people have the right to divorce. It’s quite another to say that divorce is a moral imperative.
When you define marriage as the expression of true love you are also making divorce a moral imperative.
In truth, our modern culture, the one we consider to be advanced and sophisticated, has no idea what marriage is really about.
In the old days marriage was an arrangement between families whose primary purpose was to perpetuate community.
In many ways it still is. It's good that young people fall in love. It's not so good if they fall in love with just anyone.
The nature of the marital institution has not changed. What has changed is the extent to which young people have a say in the choice of mates. In the past they had little say; today they have a lot of say.
Unfortunately, this has led many young people to believe that they should have all the say.
In our culture your family cannot force you to marry anyone. That does not mean that you ought to ignore the sage advice of your parents. After all, in choosing a spouse you are inviting another individual to be part of a family that includes other people. If you ignore the wishes and judgments of those other people you are heading for trouble.
It is foolish to imagine that true love trumps all other considerations. If there is no virtue in being forced to marry someone who has been chosen by your parents there is also no virtue in choosing to marry someone who is radically unacceptable to family and friends.
Nowadays people are less likely to define themselves as members of community. The therapy culture has taught them to see themselves as unique individuals needing merely to self-actualize.
In this myth, two perfectly self-actualized individuals will form a martial unit that does not in any way impinge on the unique individuality or autonomy of either.
If that doesn’t sound like a formula for a failed marriage, I don’t know what does.
Theodore Dalrymple explains it well:
In modern society, people are supposed to shift for themselves, to develop their own lives according to their own conceptions, and to experience what is known as ‘personal growth,’ a process incapable of definition that is supposed to last until five minutes before death. People are no longer born into a social role that they are assigned to fill until they die, simply by virtue of having been born in a certain place to certain parents. In theory, at least, every man in modern society is master of his own fate. Where he ends up is a matter of his own choice and merit.
(Hat/tip to Ari Mendelson.)
For his part Dalrymple prefers the Indian way of marriage. There, one’s parents, which means one’s mother, select a number of acceptable potential spouses.
You then have the opportunity to meet and date any or all of the prospective spouses and make a decision. Or not. If none of the prospective mates is acceptable mother will find some others.
Evidently, courtship and dating is involved, but the terms of the engagement are very different.
The process is geared toward selecting a mate, not toward falling in love and developing a relationship. It’s not about finding the most intense passion or the most shared kinks or the right kinds of political views or personality traits. It’s about finding someone who would make a good spouse.
In a strange way it shows great respect for women. A woman who is freely choosing and being chosen as a wife is not being sized up as a prospective hookup or friend-with-benefits. A man who is being asked whether he wants to marry this or that woman is not seeing her as a sexual object.
Both young people will certainly consider compatibility and desirability, but they will also place more emphasis on the character trains that are required of a good spouse.
Evidently, this is quite different from internet dating or seeking true love in the classifieds.
First, because internet dating and the classifieds put more of an emphasis on personality traits and common interests.
Theodore Dalyrymple offers an example from the New York Review of Books:
Savvy, sassy, sweet and really good-looking, with lively intellect and mischievous sense of irony... Slender, willowy, with shoulder-length hair – resemble younger, funnier Susan Sarandon in looks, politics. Fun, empathic, adventurous. Can talk travel, movies, baseball as seamlessly as economics, literature, politics. Adore Clint Eastwood, Stegner, film noir,Picasso, Vermont tomatoes, swimming badly, exquisite discoveries.
The woman is presenting her tastes, interests, and her personality traits. Essentially, she is presenting herself as a traveling companion, not a future spouse.
Of course, the internet is less selective than your mother. While your mother might choose a half-dozen prospective mates, internet dating can provide you with access to thousands of available mates.
Many of them might not be acceptable to family and friends. Many of them might not be compatible. Many of them might have serious character flaws. Since they have not been pre-screened by someone who has your interests at heart, you do not know.
If you want to find out you will be spending a considerable amount of time and energy on the dating sites.
Still, internet dating does provide an embarrassment of riches. Isn’t this much, much better than having to choose among the sons or daughters of your mother’s friends and contacts?
Not really. Studies of consumer choice show that people make better choices when the selection is more limited. A consumer who has to choose among six brands of detergent will make a more rational choice than if he has to choose among six hundred brands of detergent.
Recently, Northwestern University professor Eli Frankel pondered this question. The Economist reports his conclusion:
Not surprisingly, the difficulty of choosing from abundance seems to apply to choice of people, too. Dr Finkel could find no study which addressed the question directly, in the context of internet dating. But speed-dating once again provided an answer. Here, he found studies which showed that when faced with abundant choice, people pay less attention to characteristics that require thinking and conversation to evaluate (occupational status and level of education, for example) and more to matters physical. Choice, in other words, dulls the critical faculties.
Having a limited selection does not mean that you are settling. It means that you are more likely to make a better decision.
Certainly, internet dating has produced some wonderful marriages. This is probably more a testimony to the maturity and judgment of the participants than a demonstration of the sites' usefulness.
But, is a random selection process more efficient than the family-based process that used to pertain in America and that still pertains in India?
Probably, it is not.
After all, fewer and fewer young people are getting married in America. Perhaps they get so fatigued and discombobulated by internet dating that they just give up.